My convention season is over for 2009. I just got back from DragonCon. For those of you who don't know, DragonCon is the largest science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction convention in the U.S., held each year in Atlanta, Georgia over the Labor Day weekend. It gets about 40,000 attendees each year and a lot of big name (sci-fi/sf/syfy) celebrities. It's also a sizable convention for games, particularly roleplaying games.
This was the first science fiction convention for me since 1994. I used to go to the Ad Astra convention in Toronto fairly regularly. In 1994 I went to the World Science Fiction Convention, held that year in Winnipeg, Manitoba. That was an interesting convention. Not a good convention, but an interesting one. For various reasons (which could fill a post in its own) that convention drove out most of my interest in literary science fiction for almost a decade. (I still kept my interest in sci-fi movies and TV, and got into sci-fi miniatures gaming, but... well, as I said, it's a long story.) So, I really wasn't sure what to expect, especially since this was the first sci-fi convention where I would spend a considerable amount of time running games.
Last Thursday I spent the morning finishing up a Godlike (World War II super heroes; think Saving Private Ryan meets Heroes) scenario for the convention. Then I printed some character sheets for the game and generally messed about when I should have been packing. I drove from West Monroe (with a stop in Jackson, MS) to Birmingham, AL where Shane Ivey, president of Arc Dream (publisher of Godlike) lives. My trip started inauspiciously, given that I forgot some stuff and had to find a grocery store on the way. I got there safe and sound on our car's new Firestone tires (recently purchased).
We left Birmingham Friday morning, getting on the road about 7:30 CDT, and arriving in Atlanta around 11:00 EDT. We had to unload the truck, meet up with Ben Baugh (Arc Dream and White Wolf writer) at our hotel, check in at the hotel, and register at the con by 1 p.m. for my first game. We didn't make it.
Part of this is because the convention shuttle didn't show up. Our hotel (the Renaissance) was about 10 blocks away (about a 15 to 20 minute walk to the Hyatt, or 25 minute romp to the Hilton, where the games were held). It was supposed to run regularly, but I didn't see it all convention. I did see a bus someone told me was the shuttle but I'm still not convinced this mythical beast existed.
DragonCon is a bit missing in the organization side, at least compared to GenCon. Now, GenCon has the advantage of centering around a large Indianapolis convention centre and adjoining hotels. DragonCon is spread among three or four main hotels in the city's downtown. Due to the hills, one hotel's first floor is another's second floor. It wasn't until Sunday that I could navigate the labyrinth of hotel floors and skywalks such that I could find any given event. So, part of the organizational difficulties were due to physical logistics.
We arrived at the central registration area (the furthest away hotel) and — when we asked where the game masters registered — we were told to follow a yellow line taped down on the floor. That took us to the VIP registration. There were 5 people total in line and 5 people behind the booth. It took them at least 15 minutes to get to us and another 5 to realize that game masters didn't register there. We then had to go to another hotel, the Hilton where the games were held. There was a table in the basement level there where they gave out the GM badges. Now, they were efficient once we got there, but why no one couldn't have told us this to being with, and why registration was not centralized is beyond me.
I missed running my game. As Murphy would have it, this is the game I spent a good chunk of last week writing and was finishing up on Thursday morning. It's not wasted, since it will end up in the Operation Torch book, but it was disappointing.
With my game missed, we hung out in the open gaming area in the basement of the Hilton. It was a pretty good place for spur-of-the moment games, and they had a good selection of games to "rent" (at $5 per game). I had hoped to get there again, but never made it. We set up for a "games on demand" session, where we would just run a game if people came up and asked. As we would find out, the times were marked wrong. Instead of us running this at 2:30 as we had told the con, we were scheduled for 1 p.m. Nonetheless, we met some gamers and talked about the games.
After the games on demand, Ben and I walked the dealers rooms. There were two exhibit halls in the Marriott, one of which held the Arc Dream booth, and a dealer's room. Not sure what constituted the difference, but the exhibit halls were easier to find and much, much brighter. I did get a present for Alana in the dealer's room, though: a pair of clip on handmade demon horns (she asked me to look for them).
After the exhibit hall closed we ate at the food court. All but one of my meals was there. I ate at the Farmer's Market. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but the catfish they served was barking back at me for hours. Some of the others ate at a Cajun place, which was good on Friday but made them ill when they ate there again on Saturday. I wonder about the J. Brenner's cheesesteak place. It never had more than one or two people at it while other places had long lines. What, exactly, was wrong with the place? I ended up eating two meals at Moe's Southwest Grill, one at Dairy Queen, and one at Chick-fil-A.
Next up was the Stump The Geeks panel. The people running it (friends of the Iveys) read out a description of a science fiction, fantasy, or horror movie with the spec fic elements taken out. You had to guess the movie or show, and got a prize if you were right. I got one of the first ones right: "A TV series that was not canceled this season, which could also be something you sewed on jeans." I shot my hand up. "Fringe?" I won a new D&D paperback. If the first page is anything to go by, it's horribly written but luckily bad enough to be funny.
We walked to the hotel and crashed for about an hour. I changed into my Invader Zim t-shirt, and we walked back to the convention for the first of our midnight games. I ran "Target: Planet Earth", a game for Wild Talents where the players played aliens invading the Earth. I had five players, which was great.
Their mission was to investigate human technology and watch out for other alien activity. They were deposited in their base — disguised as a regular family home — in fictional Placid Falls, Florida. I had them choose between long range sensors, a shuttle pod, or a biotech lab for their base; they chose the lab. The player characters (PCs) were met by the neighbors right away and invited to a party where they acted inappropriately, as they were aliens with only a vague idea of human culture. They did learn about the disappearance of some kids, which was an important clue. The base came with a machine that created money, so they spent the next morning buying a car (a minivan, though one of the aliens wanted a Corvette because it was fast). They also stole a neighbor's newspaper and learned about bright lights in the sky and crop circles in a soy bean field. The neighbors mentioned the return of the kids, which seemed to coincide with the UFO sighting. The PCs investigated the crop circles and learned they were made by another alien ship, they discovered synthetic rubber that, among other things, was used in bubble gum, and they detected that the kids had been there. At this point, some mysterious "persons in brown" showed up and the players/aliens disguised as humans had to evade them. The PCs determined they had to sneak into the local bubble gum factory, where they found the missing kids and their family, and found that other aliens were putting brain control larvae into bubble gum. To make a long, but exciting, story short, they escaped from the factory, captured an alien flying saucer, blew up the factory, saved the family, and let the persons in brown clean up the mess. Everyone had a ball and thanked me for a fun game. It wrapped up around 4:30 (we were about 1 a.m. getting started), and I got to sleep just after 6.
I was supposed to get to a panel on games the next day, but couldn't find it (I was looking in the wrong hotel), so I ended up spending a fair bit of time at the Arc Dream booth. When I wasn't doing that, I was people watching. People watching is great at DragonCon, as at least a third of the people wore costumes, a number that bumps up to at least 50% the night of the masquerade. Steampunk costumes were all the rage, and — quite frankly — an aesthetic that appealed to me. If I had money I'd be very tempted to make a steampunk costume for next year.
There were other costumes that were... unfortunate. Some people need to learn that spandex is not their friend. And what do you call a double-decker muffin top? I particularly liked the guy with the homemade samurai armour, a really awesome Star Wars emperor, and I have to give kudos to the guy in the Monarch (from the Venture Brothers) costume, but really wish I could block the vision of the 200 pound woman dressed as the Watchman's Silk Spectre. There were more inventive costumes than derivative. Oh, sure, there were tons of people as Rohrscach from The Watchmen, and just as many Jokers, and flocks of stormtroopers, but there were plenty of unique costumes, too. The steampunk Boba Fett was great, and the girls dressed up as waitresses from True Blood were cute. I was surprised at the number of general pop culture costumes, too. There were at least a couple of people dressed as Flo from the Progressive Insurance commercials. There are too many costumes to begin to mention in detail, good and bad. If you search the web you'll find a number of pics. The costumes were so prevalent that at one point in the food court I see this grey blob moving out of the corner of my eye, and I started to think about what it might be. A rock monster? A horta from Star Trek? It turned out to be a garbage bag in a bin pushed by a janitor...
My 6 pm game was another Godlike game, this one being the first adventure from the Black Devils Brigade book I'm writing for Arc Dream. It's based on an actual unit from World War II, but with superpowered "Talents" added. I had six players, and the game went very well. The players did an excellent job killing Nazis, and they took the mountain successfully. Everyone had a blast, and two players bought stuff. You can't beat flaming Nazis (as in "on fire") for good times.
I was beat after that, so I headed back to the hotel. A couple of us took a cab: $12 to go 10 blocks (if that). I'd never heard of cabs charging extra money for extra passengers... For supper, I ate at the Varsity, an Atlanta landmark. A friend visited the Varsity some 20 years ago. I didn't recognize the place until I walked in and heard the "What'll ya have?" chant from the cashiers. It was an experience, though I thought the burgers were just okay, nothing great. I wanted to check e-mail when I got back to the hotel, only to discover that the hotel wanted $12.95 a night for internet access. They might have had free internet in the lobby, but I was too tired to bother with that. What's with these big hotels charging an arm and a leg for internet access when I can get it for free from a Best Western in northwest Tennessee?
Up around 9 on Sunday and off to the con. I got there in time to see 90 minutes of their robot wars competition. The robots were small compared to those on TV (the "ant" class were only about 6 inches long, if that). That's okay, the camera and projection screen showed all the action. They fought it out in an enclosed arena. It was lots of fun, particularly in one of the last fights in the larger "beetle" class when the one robot chewed apart another. You don't get this sort of thing at GenCon.
At 1 p.m. I ran my second Black Devils Brigade game. This used the same characters as the first game, but from a mission later in the timeline of the book. I had six players, and I again got a great response. In fact, of the six players, four of them bought something at our booth. They all thought it was a great game, with one player flipping through my rule book in anticipation of buying it. The reaction was phenomenal.
The rest of the evening was spent hanging at the booth, and wandering the con. We tried to get into the Mad Scientist's Ball (excerpts of which are on YouTube), but the line was way too long (a theme for the weekend). We consoled ourselves with checking out the costumes and just wandering around. It sounds boring, but I had a blast. I could have done without having a cherry pit hit me square on the bridge of my noes from umpteen stories up, though! (This was inside the hotel. All of the hotels are really, really tall with central atria.)
I was set to run a game of This Favored Land at midnight, but no one showed. I think this was partly because the description of the game didn't mention Wild Talents at all. This was a disappointment, particularly given that the Monsters and Other Childish Things game and the Delta Green game were overbooked. I would have offered to run my game for some of the "turn aways" if I hadn't been distracted helping Ross Payton's Delta Green game by creating a DG character on the fly without the rulebook (took me 15 minutes!). Instead, I got to play in a Monsters game. This was fun, but the player I was paired with (I was his monster, he played a child) wasn't very "active", which limited my actions. I still had fun, though, and it was the only roleplaying game I played (as opposed to run) in a year. We were back in the hotel by 5 am.
Next morning we rushed to check out. Shane shifted the truck to a closer parking lot, so I didn't have to walk to the con hotels. I ate a quick lunch then went to my last game. At GenCon, tables are numbered and assigned to games, and the table number is published in the event book. Players simply show up to their table at the right time. Not so at DragonCon. Instead, they have a dopey "mustering" process. Everyone gathers in a room. Each game is called out. Games are assigned a table at that time, and players march off to their games with the GM. This eats up 10 to 20 minutes of time for no real advantage. Okay, I guess it makes it easier to find players for games that are partially filled, but I didn't see that done successfully the whole time I was there. Each game also gets a $5 coin that you can give to a "winner" in the game, which they can spend in the dealers' rooms. I let the players vote for the winner. I've never been crazy about this idea. I don't like competitive roleplaying. In one of our Delta Green players Shane awarded one to the player who lost the most sanity, which I thought was pretty cool.
Once again, no one showed for my This Favored Land game. The last day of the con isn't a great time to hope for players for a relatively obscure game. I hung out in the muster room for about an hour, talking to the people there. There's a feeling among gamers that DragonCon could do a lot more to attract gamers. Regardless, there were more games this year than last year. This is particularly interesting as White Wolf was not present at the convention (and I had planned to buy a couple of things from them!), and the big Shadowrun group had 8 fewer games this year than last. I heard that the cheese grinder game, an annual D&D dungeon crawl, went from 242 players last year to about 150 this year. This was at least partially attributed to the game moving to 4th edition. I'm not sure if this says anything other than the fact that 4th edition has splintered the existing D&D fan base in its attempt to bring new players to the hobby.
I spent a little more time at the booth, then wandered the dealer's rooms again. There was definitely an anti-Twilight bias at the convention. Oh, sure, the books were for sale and there were t-shirts with the characters from the books and the movie. There just happened to be more t-shirts and posters against the series. My favorite t-shirt said, "... And Then Buffy Staked Edward. The End." Another said, "Real vampires don't sparkle!". I overheard some fans bemoaning the fact that Twilight was "written by a housewife who didn't even bother researching vampires". Between this and the debate between "steampunk" versus "gaslight", I was reminded that fandom wouldn't be fandom if it didn't splinter into mutually antipathetic sub groups.
And here's an open letter to folks at the Steve Jackson Games/Atlas Games/Chaosium booth. These three companies shared a booth here and at GenCon. At both conventions, they had a habit of yelling out and cheering whenever someone paid them in exact change. It's "a thing" that they're known for. Here's my suggestion: cut it out, already! I mean, jeez, guys, if you're going to scream every time you get exact change make sure you're not doing it in a potential customer's ear! I had a purchase in my hand when one of the booth monkeys cried out, "I have... exact change!" and another Pavloved a scream RIGHT IN MY EAR. I don't know how many, if any, sales your little stunt brings you, but it lost you one from me. My ear was ringing for a good five minutes. So knock it off!
I did get a free game from the Troll and Toad booth called Vapor's Gambit. It doesn't get great reviews, but we'll give it a shot. I bought a dungeon crawl card game I'd been hunting for several months. I bought a new book for Alana from one of her favorite authors and a book for myself called Discarded Science: Ideas That Seemed Good At The Time... by John Grant. I also bought a cool Edgar Allan Poe t-shirt (there's a connection between Poe and This Favored Land). I really liked the mix of stuff for sale. Even if most of it wasn't something I'd buy, all the booths were interesting. I found a great leather trench coat to replace the long oil skin coat I had to throw away a couple of years ago, if I can pony up $400.
At 5 pm the convention was over. We packed the booth, rolled the boxes out to the nearby parking lot, and loaded the truck. It's sad seeing a convention break down, particularly since this was the last of the season for me. Still, I was missing Alana and Logan badly and looking forward to getting home.
I'm a gamer. I love GenCon, with its huge dealer's room and focus on games. Still, I think I had more fun at DragonCon. There were far more costumes, and more to do in the evening. There were tons of panels I wanted to get to, while at GenCon you have to do a little work to get into something after 8 pm. This was seen by the great turnout we had for our 6 pm and midnight games. I wish the DragonCon event book was better laid out. I hate that it's split up by genre. It assumes that most con goers are only interested in one particular area. It makes it hard to just pick a time and find out what was available to do. By contrast, the GenCon book is split primarily by date and time first, and then subdivided (with a small icon indicator) by genre. It makes for a superior event planner.
In all, I had a blast. If I get to go next year, I'll make a better effort to attend more panels in my off time. I'll also do a better job of bringing my own food, not just to cut cost but to spend less time in line. As for a costume? I'm still thinking about it...
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7 months ago